Loy Xingwen saw Connor Morozumi lugging a large plastic bucket down the street in Atlanta. “That’s Connor — you’re going to be working with him,” Loy’s graduate adviser told him as they drove past. Loy and Morozumi were both 20-somethings about to start studying for their doctorates in population, biology, ecology and evolution at Emory University.
Four years later, they’re seasoned scientific collaborators, having spent several springs as roommates researching how early snow melt affects plant pollination in the Rocky Mountains. They’ve also gone for hikes together, and gathered for backyard barbecues.
Loy, 31, and Morozumi, 32, have that special connection that often sparks in workplaces — platonic pairs who refer to each other as their “work spouse.” These professional duos might not have become friends if it weren’t for the serendipity of being in the same graduate school cohort, intern class or office pod. Unlike romantic pairings, there are no vows to say when someone is your work husband or wife, and monogamy isn’t required.
When the coronavirus pandemic sent many workers home, it threw these twosomes for a loop. Much of the joy and synchronicity of the work-spouse relationship comes from having a similar mission while dealing with shared challenges (that chatty co-worker in the next cubicle, an unreasonable boss or an over-air-conditioned office). The proximity of an office means it doesn’t take much planning to meet up for coffee, lunch or happy hour. Or just shoot a glance and know, without saying a word, what your work spouse is thinking.
Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon to see a work wife or husband “more than we saw our actual spouses,” says friendship expert Shasta Nelson, author of “The Business of Friendship.” “We might know more about what’s going on in their life than our actual friends.”
As COVID-19 has dragged on for months and, according to one June estimate, 42 percent of the country’s workforce is working from home full-time, how do these professional besties stay close? And what could happen to such relationships if an office is slow to fill up again — or never does?
Loy and Morozumi have mind-melded so effectively that, before COVID-19, “we’d be in a room and a professor would say something and we’d know whether it was overbearing or incorrect or problematic or correct. I’d look at him and he’d look at me — and we’d both start laughing,” Loy says. Morozumi says Loy is “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” so that laughter comes easily.
Now that those types of meetings are happening over Zoom, Loy says he tries his best to text Morozumi “really hilarious things” so that he struggles to keep a straight face. “Watching him squirm brings me much joy,” Loy says. Recently, they were in a virtual lecture, learning about bobtail squid — and when the speaker put up an image of the baby squid, Loy and Morozumi both wrote in a group chat simultaneously: “Omg bbe.”
Loy and Morozumi have made the ultimate pandemic commitment — after consulting with partners and roommates, each added the other to their COVID-19 bubbles so they could work together in the small office they share on Emory’s campus instead of having to trade off days and clean thoroughly in between. Nelson finds work spouses are also meeting up for Zoom happy hours, socially distant lunches and masked walks.
Cami Kaos, 44, and her work wife, Courtney Patubo Kranzke, 44, are used to connecting while not seeing each other in the office every day. They both work for WordPress, a web publishing company that since 2005 has been “distributed,” meaning that all of its workers are remote. Though the pair both live in Portland, they first bonded while on work travel, and discovered they several shared interests (science fiction, cocktails, food). Pre-covid-19, they would get together for cocktails once a month or to co-work while at a nail salon.
They haven’t seen each other during the pandemic (Kaos is high-risk), but they’ve found other ways to stay in touch. For Patubo Kranzke’s birthday, Kaos and a few other friends had a virtual party on Patubo Kranzke’s island inside the video game Animal Crossing. And when Patubo Kranzke recently got new cats and had to get rid of some plants that were toxic for felines, she dropped them at Kaos’s door.
“There’s a preconception that when people are working distributed, you don’t get to know each other,” Kaos says. But in addition to becoming genuine friends, she and Patubo Kranzke admire one another as co-workers. “She’s the one teammate I know I can always rely on and vice versa,” Kaos adds.
Lauren Harbury, 29, and her work spouse, Dion Galloway, 39, also bonded while on business travel. They work at a bank in Charlotte but both have creative side hustles (she runs a company that makes feminist apparel and home goods, and he runs a creative studio that hosts events and has a store attached). Harbury credits those ventures as crucial to the friendship they forged in their day jobs. “Creatives tend to understand where other creatives are coming from faster,” Harbury says.
In fact, they get along so well that Galloway sells Harbury’s items at his store. In this work-from-home era, they text every day and meet up for a socially distant lunch or tea a couple times a month.
While 10 percent of Americans ages 25 to 54 became unemployed in the beginning months of the pandemic, according to Labor Department data, about half of the jobs lost between February and April have been recovered. For those who are in new gigs and are getting to know their co-workers remotely, Harbury suggests talking about your interests beyond work. “Everybody is more than their job, and everyone is going through such a strange time right now,” she says. “Ask your work colleagues if they’re OK and how they’re doing. Don’t be afraid to volunteer some info about yourself as well, as long as it’s appropriate.”
Nelson, the friendship expert, agrees — noting that new employees have more leverage in the early stages. Pick a few people in the organization, Nelson says, and email them to ask if they have time for a 30-minute conversation in the next week. “The goal isn’t to sit down and work on a project together; it’s to get to know each other,” she says. Nelson has even seen managers set up such calls for their employees.
Hilla Dotan, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Collar School of Management, says that when companies go completely virtual, they risk losing workers because an organization’s social glue can weaken. “Trying to create those social interactions I think is becoming even more critical,” Dotan says, noting that Zoom meetings should make room for some of the informal socializing workers would normally do by the water cooler or during coffee runs.
As workplaces reopen, some might adopt a hybrid model — which Dotan indicates could go a long way for work spouses. Israel, where she lives and works, has cycled from initial lockdown in March to opening back up in May to another lockdown in September after a spike in COVID-19 cases. From what she’s seen so far, coming into the office just twice a week could “neutralize the whole feeling of the virtual world,” Dotan says. Even without seeing one another every day, “that’s enough to maintain the social part of the workspace.”
For Paige Clarno, a 39-year-old box office manager at a performing arts center in Reno, Nev., her “sister wives” help serve as an indispensable reality check, which is especially important in the Zoom age because there are fewer social cues to read. “There’s such a lack of communication that happens in an office. So having somebody to say ‘She just said that, didn’t she?’ — it’s a really great thing to check in and see if you’re overreacting to something,” Clarno says.
She goes to different people for different things — and they’re not afraid to be honest with her. So sometimes, when Clarno asks: “Am I being a jerk about this?” the answer is: “Yeah, you are.”